BROOKSVILLE – Back on March 30, Hernando High’s softball team had dropped four straight the past two seasons to Nature Coast, and were three outs away from pushing that streak to five.
Then the Lady Leopards scored three times in the top of the seventh inning that night, rallying for a 3-2 victory, and everything changed. They followed that with a 4-0 win in the Class 5A, District 7 title game on the Lady Sharks’ home field on April 27.
So when Tuesday night’s 5A-Region 2 semifinal arrived at Ernie Chatman Field at Tom Varn Stadium, momentum in this series had clearly shifted to the Purple and Gold. It no longer felt like much of a surprise when host Hernando took care of business, advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2014 with an 8-4 triumph.
The Lady Leopards (21-9) will host Eustis in the regional final on Friday, at Tom Varn Park starting at 7 p.m.
“To be able to play Nature Coast here, obviously it’s a great rivalry, and it is for a reason because you get games like this. Jug (Olmstead) is a great coach, they’re a great team. They’ve got some great ballplayers over there,” Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said. “Obviously it’s a huge win for us, but more importantly we’re playing in another region final.
“This team is so unassuming. People didn’t expect this from this team, they just didn’t. Very little attention, there’s no real superstar. It’s a team. So it’s satisfying for the girls that have put in the time, put in the work, they’re here, and it wasn’t great all the time but they handled the moment, they did what they needed to do. These girls deserve a lot of credit for the work they’ve put in to get here.”
It was actually a rugged start for the Lady Leopards, as the Lady Sharks (20-9) scored in the top of the first inning. Chayse Skinner hit a leadoff pop-fly double that landed untouched in shallow left field, and the same thing happened on Celine Kordon’s two-out pop into center that wasn’t handled, likely due to the setting sun, resulting in a run-scoring single.
But Hernando came back with three in the bottom of the second, Janea Mobley doubling to start the frame and eventually scoring on Nakayla Roberts’ suicide squeeze.
Karli Kimbrough recorded a run batted in when she hit a pop fly that went off the glove of the shortstop, technically going for a fielder’s choice as a force out was made at third base. Taliyah Dowdell followed with RBI single grounded past the shortstop.
Leading off the bottom of the third, the Lady Leopards’ pitcher Ali Shenefield helped her own cause with a solo home run to right field. She said it was the first time she had gone deep at any level.
“I’m tough on the girls, but you’re playing in a regional semifinal against Nature Coast. Have fun, enjoy the moment. And again, it was the bunts that pushed that first run across,” Bittinger said. “It just seemed like they exhaled, we got two more. Ali’s solo shot was huge for us in the fourth.
“It was three runs (in the second), but it wasn’t like we were hitting the ball really well. Just finding holes, bunts. And Ali came in and hit that shot, and then I think that kind of got us going.”
“She’s (Abbey Primavera) been pitching me inside a lot lately, so I just turned on it and that was my first one ever, so I was really excited,” Shenefield said. “It made everybody excited since it my first one. So it just pushed us to finish and beat them.”
Later in the third, Sammi Burnette’s single to left got by the left fielder, allowing Ali Bronson to come around, extending the lead to 5-1.
In the fourth, Kaylee Frascatore smacked a two-run homer that hit a truck parked beyond the left-field fence. Shenefield then tripled, preceding Mobley’s sacrifice fly to right, pushing the advantage to 8-1.
Alanis Berrios got a run back for the Lady Sharks on a groundout to second in the top of the fifth, and Skinner plated two on a triple to right-center in the sixth.
“We left 11 people on base. We had opportunities to get back in the game, and we had opportunities to open it up early, and we didn’t,” Nature Coast head coach Jug Olmstead said. “The last two times we played them, we hit 13 balls in the air and 14 balls in the air. And we hit another 13 in the air today. You hit the ball on the ground and they’ll make mistakes. We didn’t hit the ball on the ground. Hey, it wasn’t in the cards. They just outplayed us.
“Inconsistent (this season). We started off real well. I had backloaded the schedule with a lot of good teams at the end, and lost five games in that stretch by a total of eight runs. We just never got on course hitting-wise, and normally me with the hitting, I’m zoned in on this. We just never got together as a group hitting. It was sporadic the whole year, and it came back to bite us.”
Also on Tuesday, host Springstead dusted Belleview in a 6A-2 semifinal, 9-0. Catcher Paige Pfent blasted a three-run home run in the bottom the first to immediately set the tone. Two-run doubles by Abby Oliver in the second and Jenna Ryan in the third made it 7-0.
Pitcher Kama Woodall added RBIs on single in the fourth and a fielder’s choice in the sixth to close out the scoring. She threw a complete game, giving up four hits and three walks while striking out six.
The Lady Eagles (25-4) are now headed for a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight matchup, a 1-0 loss to Land O’ Lakes, this time at the Lady Gators’ field on Friday at 7 p.m.
“We played real well. We hit the ball hard all night long,” Springstead head coach Craig Swartout said. “It was something I was really proud of. We came in really focused. It was a great night.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.